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African American Studies Program

  • Phillip Agnew

2018 Featured Speaker - Phillip Agnew

21st Annual Robert Smalls Lecture

 Phillip Agnew, civil rights activist

Defending the Dream

Heralded as “one of this generation’s leading voices,” Phillip Agnew, a co-founder of the social justice organization Dream Defenders, is set to be the featured speaker for the 21st Annual Robert Smalls Lecture Series, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m. at the University of South Carolina School of Law, Karen J. Williams Courtroom, Rm. 103.

Agnew co-founded Dream Defenders in 2012 following the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. The grassroots’ organization’s objective was to combat racial violence and has since mobilized communities nationwide against racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline and “stand your ground” laws. He has been recognized by both EBONY magazine and The Root as one of the 100 most influential African Americans in the nation.

Agnew, a native of Chicago, first emerged as a national activist when he helped to organize students from FAMU, Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College in the creation of the Student Coalition for Justice, which was formed in response to the killing of Martin Lee Anderson case, a 14-year old Florida teen who died while incarcerated at a bootcamp.

Agnew flexed his community organizing muscles in the 2018 midterms by helping to pass Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to felons. Now his sights are set on the 2020 elections.

“I’ll be talking about the importance of having a vision for 2020. We need a political agenda that reaches beyond party and candidate. We should be looking at past historical black traditions to inform our future, and how we should be thinking about a 2020 vision and beyond,” Agnew said.


He served as a FAMU student body president, a student member of the board of trustees, and the co-chair of the university’s Vote Coalition, Agnew was recognized as a national IMPACT Leader and as one of the top student leaders in the nation by the Diversity Leadership Conference.

In 2008, Agnew was awarded FAMU’s prestigious Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Student Leadership Award.

His work in community activism has been highlighted internationally, including on MSNBC the Huffington Post, USA Today, the Guardian and Democracy Now.

African American Studies Director Qiana Whitted said, Agnew is the ideal speaker for the lecture because of the current political climate.

“Agnew’s incredible work as an organizer is a model for how grassroots activism that originates on college campuses can focus on local issues while having a global impact. Many have said that the Dream Defenders’ commitment to mobilizing young voters, as demonstrated recently in the Florida governor’s race, are reminiscent of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the 1960s. In African American (AFAM) Studies at USC, we also see the steadfast spirit of Robert Smalls in Agnew’s leadership and commitment to justice, and we are delighted to feature his insights as part of our annual lecture series.”

Begun in 1997 under the leadership of Andrew Billingsley and the USC African American Studies program, the lecture series is named for daring Civil War hero and Congressman Robert Smalls. Previous speakers have included historian John Hope Franklin, poet Nikky Finney, artist Jonathan Green and S.C Congressman James Clyburn.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.